A Lesson in Purim About Embracing Chaos

A fresh look at the Purim story suggests that the Jews of Shushan were soberly aware of the dangers surrounding them, but chose celebration over despair.

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After several months of tests, transfusions and other treatments, my chemotherapy is approaching its end. Yet trying to understand how I should respond to what happened to me will most likely continue for some time.

In a previous article, I focused on a current medical theory stating that cancer often occurs as a result of randomly mutating genes, rather than due to poor lifestyle choices or any other direct reason. Such a notion raises the challenge of finding meaning – religious or otherwise – within what I termed a “mazzal (luck) -driven world.”

Dealing with potential randomness may be doubly difficult because it contradicts our natural way of thinking. In his best-selling book, "Fooled by Randomness," Lebanese-American scholar and author Nassim Taleb explains that we grossly underestimate the role randomness plays in life – hence being fooled – because our brains are hard-wired to see patterns, make connections, and impose causality or narrative into events (even when none necessarily exist). According to Taleb, whenever we encounter a situation caused by potential chance or randomness, our natural tendency is to attempt to explain it and place it within a framework of order.

Bearing in mind that this way of perceiving the world is an integral part of our evolutionary makeup, it seems unlikely we can rewire our brain away from it. Nor might we necessarily want to. These mental order-oriented biases have a huge advantage in allowing our minds to not become overwhelmed by an infinite amount of data. In short, they allow us to live. But do they also allow us to ignore a very frightening question? If we are surrounded by chance occurrences, if disaster can strike at any time or life threatening illnesses can occur 'just because,' how can a person live his life free from constant fear?

If a malignant tumor can continue to silently grow as a happy couple stands under the chuppah, how can we allow ourselves to love, to care, to laugh, to feel?

The festival of Purim provides an interesting prism through which we can examine these questions. Chance and happenstance are seemingly everywhere in the Book of Esther, and God’s name lies absent from the entire story. Even the name of the holiday reflects the Pur – the lots drawn by the evil Haman to determine when exactly his (ultimately unsuccessful) plot to destroy the Jewish people was to be carried out. Yet the traditional reading of the tale seems to reject randomness and chaos.

According to many biblical commentators, the Jews’ theological nemesis Amalek, who undermine the concept of Divine Providence by being the first people to attack the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt, represent chance and coincidence. The Jewish way – so tradition suggests – is to reject these concepts in favor of seeing God guiding events towards salvation. Indeed, according to the Midrash, every time the word “king” appears in the Book of Esther, it really refers to the King of Kings, rather than to the Persian emperor Ahasuerus.

This reading certainly has its attractions. Yet it is undoubtedly easier to retroactively perceive order and structure (and God) in a story when all ends well. As many of us are well aware, this task proves significantly harder when the story ends differently. And it often does.

I wonder whether an alternative authentic reading is possible, one that does not seek to eradicate chance occurrences. Perhaps the Jews of Shushan weren’t wholly "fooled by randomness" and rejected attempts to retroactively place their experience into a clean ordered narrative where everyone inevitably lives happily ever after. Perhaps they were all too aware of the sort of world they (and we) inhabit, one in which the Biblical God of History is not guaranteed to protect them. They recognized a reality in which one’s future is fragile and uncertain, where, as American Rabbi and philosopher Yitz Greenberg writes, “A king authorizes mass murder and, a short time later, does not even remember the incident where genocide is narrowly averted by flirty tea parties, by currying favor and appealing to male chauvinism.”

In response to this terrifying experience, they instituted traditions meant to commemorate the event: retelling the story itself; feasting with family and friends; giving gifts to one another; and generously providing money to the poor, thus becoming more engaged members of the community and greater society. They decided, as Greenberg argues, to “Celebrate the vulnerability of life. Eat, drink, and be merry, for today the good win! Tomorrow the turn of the wheel may endanger it all. Do not despair or sulk! Admit your vulnerability and share your wealth with the poor, your friends, your family. In this way, pleasure expresses religious value.”

I can think of no greater response in the face of randomness and chance than this.